Promotional videos of Stephen Harper's tour of Iraq and Kuwait that revealed faces of Canadian Armed Forces members and left them vulnerable to attack by extremists were not reviewed by the Department of National Defence before they were first posted to the Internet, contrary to what the Prime Minister's Office initially said, The Globe and Mail has learned.
On Tuesday, media raised security concerns over two of the videos produced by the PMO's in-house public-relations team – footage the Conservatives quickly uploaded to the Internet to advertise Mr. Harper's Mideast trip.
Initially, the PMO had assured reporters the military vetted the videos before they were published online. Senior government officials told the media that the Forces had raised no objections to what had been uploaded, statements that left the impression the military was in part responsible for the fact the videos made it online.
Sources say in fact it was only after journalists drew attention to the videos Tuesday that the Canadian military had an opportunity to scrutinize the footage and to conclude, as it did later that day, that the material represented a risk to soldiers.
The two videos in question, which the PMO yanked from its website as questions mounted, were never re-published on the Internet.
It took about eight hours Tuesday before Mr. Harper's office finally admitted the two videos constituted a security breach and apologized. In a statement, PMO director of communications Rob Nicol characterized this realization as coming "after a second review" of multimedia material the Conservatives shot in Iraq and Kuwait.
Sources say officials in the military were upset the Harper government never corrected the record that day to make it clear any mistakes made were by the Prime Minister's Office and not the Forces. The sense among these officials is not that the PMO deliberately lied to reporters but that it communicated information – namely that the videos had been cleared by the military – before confirming this to be true. And later, it failed to correct this impression when it admitted the videos constituted a security breach.
This breach is in part a reflection of how eager the Harper government's communications team is to get out its version of events as soon as possible, to generate its own coverage that frames the news exactly how the team would prefer it be reported.
There is no indication disciplinary action has been taken against anyone in the Prime Minister's Office, which declined to publicly comment on the matter or the PMO's role in what happened.
An official who spoke on background would only say "we are undertaking a thorough review of the protocols" for handling such images of soldiers and that the PMO would not discuss staffing matters.
The slip-up was particularly mortifying for Mr. Harper, whose government lionizes the military and has styled itself as tough-minded on security, defence and the war on terror.
It threatened to overshadow his surprise trip to Iraq this weekend, during which he travelled to within six kilometres of the front lines in the battle with Islamic State forces and made a rally-the-troops visit to Kuwait, where more than 600 personnel support Canada's aerial combat mission against the jihadis.
From the very beginning of Canada's participation in the war against the Islamic State group, the military has gone to extreme lengths to prevent the identities of soldiers from getting onto the Internet and into the hands of the militants.
Canadian media accompanying Mr. Harper on his trip to Iraq and Kuwait were repeatedly warned against publishing or broadcasting images that show the faces of Canada's soldiers.
Last October, the Department of National Defence barred journalists from interviewing or photographing Canadian military personnel departing for Kuwait, saying it was concerned for the safety of the troops and their families. The restrictions ended a long-standing practice of journalists chronicling the emotional farewells between members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their families.
This week's controversy has shone a spotlight on the PMO's in-house media team, which calls itself 24/7 and is composed of political staffers. The unit, funded by the same taxpayer dollars that pay for the Prime Minister's Office, creates regular video digests of Mr. Harper's weekly activities as well as compiling interviews with ministers about new government initiatives. It's an effort to get around the mainstream media and reach voters directly, much like similar videos produced by the White House in Washington.
The PMO refuses to discuss its 24/7 operation but the government's employee directory indicates the 24/7 producers report to Joseph Lavoie, director of strategic communications. The directory lists two people, a producer and junior producer, who work in Mr. Lavoie's division. The two women who help produce the videos don't have the authority to approve videos before they are posted, sources say.
General Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, tried to play down the breach in a statement this week, calling it "low risk."
But that didn't stop the military from rejecting a request from The Globe and Mail Thursday to publish screen shots from the offending videos.
A spokesman for the Department of National Defence cited an operational security agreement The Globe and Mail had signed at the insistence of the PMO before Mr. Harper's trip that forbids publication of " identification of … personnel who are not designated spokespersons" in the war zone.
"As you are already aware, these videos are no longer online. As such, we respectfully request your co-operation in this matter and refrain from posting these images, as per the agreement prior to your visit in theatre," a Department of National Defence spokesperson said.